Labor Day, Tavis Smiley’s amazing work ethic, and his book: What I Know for Sure, My Story of Growing Up in America
I was a big fan (albeit an intermittent one) of the Tavis Smiley Show when it was on NPR several years ago. After work, I would drive around doing innumerable errands and, if I was lucky, catch Tavis’s show along the way. Many a time, I would delay an errand in order to remain in the car, to listen to something particularly interesting. I was really sad when his show went off the air.
I was browsing at the library the other day and snagged a copy of his book. I really didn’t know much about him other than the snippets of his show that I had caught, but I was pretty sure it would be interesting. My husband Rafi told me that he had caught a Mother’s Day show when Smiley had his mom on. Anyone who honors his mother is okay by me.
You wouldn’t necessarily think that I would find much in common with Mr. Smiley. We are separated by race, religion, generation, geography, childhood socio-economic background – in fact, just about everything. And yet, I found that there were many important values that we shared – faith, honesty, hard work, family, community, and public action.
I found his book to be very honest, engaging, and inspiring. Smiley is a born storyteller. I had ‘known’ him during a frozen moment of time – the span of his show on NPR. It was fascinating to get both the back story and the post-script. He has both a weekly two-hour radio program and late night television talk show. He is the youngest African-American to have a professional school and center of a university named after him: The Tavis Smiley School of Communications and The Tavis Smiley Center for Professional Media Studies at Texas Southern University. Not bad for a poor boy from a trailer park in rural Indiana!
Their household numbered 13 souls and the trailer was bursting at the seams. His father worked numerous jobs to make ends meet; his mother knew how to stretch a dollar. Church was the glue that gave the family structure and values. Being black in an overwhelmingly white environment was viewed as a challenge rather than an obstacle for young Tavis. He soon excelled at speech giving and debate and this became his ticket out to the world beyond his closed, church-oriented family life.
I discovered I had a way with words. They came easily to me. I felt comfortable talking, confident, even powerful. The sound of sentences rolling out in conversation gave me a feeling like nothing else. Some guys could throw a football the length of a field; some could sit at the piano and riff like Ray Charles; others could solve mathematical mysteries in the blink of an eye. I could talk. (p. 87)
A deacon in his church gave Tavis some recordings of speeches by Martin Luther King Jr. and this simple act changed his life. Tavis began listening to King’s words and the effect was electric:
listening to Dr. King’s speech and imagining myself at the great March on Washington was my birth, at least my rebirth, my christening into a larger world where words and ideas fired my imagination and excited my ambition. (p.92)
Two stories about Tavis Smiley capture well what makes him tick. The first was his attendance at Indiana University. I attended college and my two oldest kids are already graduates. My baby is in his last year in high school and at this very moment we are in the throes of college applications, essays, teacher recommendations, standardized tests, brochures, DVDs and an avalanche of unsolicited mail, day in and day out. What Smiley did was unlike anything I ever heard of before or expect to hear again.
Smiley’s parents worked hard to exclude the outer world with its polluting influences. They did not encourage him to apply to college; in fact, they absolutely refused to fill out or sign any of the necessary forms. Yet, being the good student that he was, Tavis got accepted at Indiana University.
He arrived on campus with one small suitcase and his acceptance letter. “With a combination of naiveté and determination, I had simply shown up.” (p.133)
He had no money for tuition, no financial aid, no dorm assignment, nothing. He spent that first night camped out in the dorm lounge and the next day made his way to the Admissions office. The administration was understandably nonplussed; they had never had a situation like this. And yet, through his persistence and insistence, at the end of the day, Smiley had dorm accommodations (the only one with private bathrooms, yet) and a scholarship, and he was on his way to a college education. I am bowled over by his gentle tenaciousness.
While without it, he most certainly wouldn’t have succeeded, he also recognized that others helped him accomplish what would have been impossible by himself.
It’s a lesson I’ll never forget. No one in this life gets ahead without the help of a lot of other people. Even the most talented need others to point out the way or lend a hand. Anyone who thinks he’s gotten ahead without the help of others is living in a fool’s paradise. (p. 138)
Another great story is how he came to work for Tom Bradley, the mayor of Los Angeles. Smiley attended a conference for student leaders in L.A. and learned that D.C. internships were highly overrated. His life changed direction as he decided that interning for Mayor Bradley would be the way to go. Smiley began a courtship campaign that included weekly letters to Mayor Bradley and his staff and two trips out to L.A. to plead his case. Again, persistence and a refusal to take no for an answer got him the internship he wanted as well as a job after graduation. But the road is never smooth and Smiley faced a hiring freeze and a period of unemployment until the job with the mayor’s office came through at the last possible minute. It might not have turned out to be the dream job that he had anticipated, but it became a stepping-stone to the next chapter in Smiley’s amazingly eventful life.
Despite the various adversities and disappointments along the way, Smiley never let it hold him up for long. After some time to reassess and regroup, he would charge off in a new direction, eager to see where it would lead him. What looked like a missed chance became a fresh opportunity. Like a remote control car which gets itself into a dead-end, Smiley simply reversed and headed in another direction totally. His relatively recent success as a well-respected political commentator was one more reaction to a temporary disappointment. But look where it has taken him and admire his drive to help, to educate, to empower, to uplift, and to inspire. While his major target is the black community, there is much that all Americans can take away from his words and his example.
All of us can read this book and take notes on how to be more assertive and ultimately reach our goals. This guy could be the poster child for positive thinking. None of us ever knows what life will throw at us. What we know for sure is that over the years, we will face failure, disappointment, and unpleasantness. That is a given; it’s part of the human condition. What we do with those challenges is one factor that differentiates winners from the rest of us. That old adage about learning to make lemonade makes my kids’ eyes roll. If I had a nickel for every time I’ve heard it from someone else or trotted it out myself to offer strength, encouragement and solace, I’d be a wealthy woman today. In the lemonade-making department, Smiley is clearly a champ. He’s turned innumerable obstacles into challenges and, in the process, has risen like cream to the top of the barrel. We can applaud his success, find inspiration in it and his dedication to empowering others. Go,Tavis!
You would probably be disappointed if I passed up this opportunity to make a connection between Smiley and his work and the work that I do. Despite the fact that I’ve never met him, I’m convinced that Smiley would see and appreciate the value of working for fair elections. While the right to vote and to be sure that your vote is counted as cast is not the entire story, it’s a good part of it. The ability to elect or eject public officials is the quintessential political act that differentiates America from a banana republic.
While I’ve never been ambitious for my own personal sake, I do have a strong drive which keeps me going, writing, talking and networking with anyone who will listen (and many who won’t) to my shpiel on the need for meaningful election reform. Together, we could accomplish a lot. Smiley reaches millions of people through his television and radio programs, books and annual symposium. Minorities suffer most when they are distanced from the power of the vote. We would be natural allies. Anyone care to make an introduction?
We need to join forces with our fellow citizens to surge forward, demanding justice – social, economic, and political justice in every way, shape, or form. The simple concept of one person, one vote needs only slight tweaking. The vote must be counted as cast, and the voter must have confidence that this is so. That means that we must have citizen oversight of our elections – votes that are cast in private, but counted in public. Secret vote counting is antithetical to democracy. Technology does not serve us well if it supplants legitimate voter confidence. We must allow and encourage the public to observe and verify the vote counting. Voters are not the enemies of the election officials, and if that is sometimes the case, it merely demonstrates the depth of the problem.
We must all admit that no one can validate what goes on inside a computerized, electronic voting machine. Computers do have their place in modern life, but not in our elections. Study after study has demonstrated that all programs and computerized voting systems can be compromised in many ways, that printed voting machine records can be made to seem to reflect something very different from the original intent. Most computer experts agree that it is impossible to protect us from all the potential breaches. A bucket still leaks if you fill almost all of the holes.